Located about 50 miles southeast of Gyulafehérvár, Szeben was founded in the 12th century by King Géza II, who settled Saxons there. (N.B. The term “Saxon” – szász – was applied to all German-speaking settlers in Transylvania, very few, if any, of whom actually came from Saxony.)
The city eventually became the largest “Saxon” city in Transylvania, a center of “Saxon” trade and culture. In 1529, the first Transylvanian print workshop was set up in Szeben.
A strong surrounding wall and 40 bastions provided meaningful protection even against the Turks. However, fire ravaged the city in 1556, and Tartars devastated it in 1658. Thirty years later, this is where the estates accepted the sovereignty of Austrian Emperor Leopold I. In the 1848-49 War of Independence, it was captured on behalf of the Hungarians by General Bem. Between 1849 and 1865, Szeben was the capital of Transylvania.
Although between the two world wars there had been 800,000 Germans living in Rumania – of which Transylvania has been a part since 1920 – by the end of WW II, that number had been reduced by half. From 1968 to 1989, the German government spent one billion marks ransoming thousands of Germans when the Ceausescu government demanded a per capita price for allowing them to leave the country. The 2011 census recorded only 27,000 Germans. Consequently, very few of the “Saxons” are left in Szeben now.
Together with Luxemburg, Szeben was named “Europe’s cultural capital” for the year 2007, since the “Saxons” of that city originally came from Luxemburg 800 years ago. This was validated by the fact that when the Archduke and Archduchess of Luxemburg visited the city, they could converse with the mayor in their own dialect.
Our Assistant Webmaster Zsuzsa Lenyel and I were fortunate to visit the city on our Transylvanian tour in 2011. On the main square, we saw the Brukenthal Palace – a fine arts museum opened in 1790, predating the Paris Louvre by three years – which forms a backdrop for the water jets that periodically spout from the pavement in the center, a great attraction to the young people. During our walking tour, we also saw the Council Tower, only the lower part of which retains the original construction of the early 13th century; the Kádár torony (Cooper Tower), probably dating back to the early 15th century, with holes for pouring hot water or tar upon any besieging enemy; the massive Lutheran church, whose construction was begun in 1371; the House of the Caryatids built in the 17th century by the widow of Baron Bethlen György; the Luxemburg House built in the 15th century; the Bridge of Liars, so named for the market women who were not known for their truthfulness; and some beautiful small apartment houses built in the Secessionist style.
Szeben formed just one part of what Claudia and Joseph Balogh had termed “the great Hungarian Mosaic”.